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Stealing laughs

Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman's palpable comedic chemistry carries Identity Thief

Identity Thief, Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy
Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy in Identity Thief. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
Identity Thief, Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Since her breakout role in 2011’s Bridesmaids, Melissa McCarthy has been everywhere, it seems. However, that’s been more for her ubiquitous presence at entertainment awards shows than actual output. Aside from her CBS sitcom Mike & Molly, she’s been in precisely one movie in the last two years.

If McCarthy broke out in 2011, 2013 looks to be the year she cements her top-flight comedic status with two starring roles: One in the forthcoming The Heat (alongside Sandra Bullock) and the other in this week’s Identity Thief. Here she plays the titular life stealer, snagging the personal info of Denver husband and father Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman) with a quick and easy bit of subterfuge.

With fake Sandy quickly racking up thousands in credit card debt and otherwise sullying his good — if genderless — name, Sandy decides to track her down and try to bring her to justice himself. Such a plan sounds far-fetched to begin with, and the reality proves even more difficult as fake Sandy’s past indiscretions find more people than just Sandy on her tail.

 Identity Thief has an emotional oomph most comedies don’t even bother establishing.

If it wasn’t obvious by the type of actors cast in the main two roles, director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) and writer Craig Mazin make sure that we know that neither Sandy nor fake Sandy are bad people despite some questionable actions on both ends.

It’s a somewhat facile approach: The identity thief is really a good person deep down! But also an effective one, because McCarthy and Bateman are nearly impossible to hate.

The filmmakers accomplish this goal in a variety of ways, but most significantly by letting various scenes play out longer than they usually do in this type of film.

Instead of just jumping directly from joke to joke to keep the laughs going, they dare to put in moments of real connections between characters, giving the story an emotional oomph most comedies don’t even bother establishing.

On the other hand, they also go all in for an R rating, which at times counteracts the emotion that they’ve set up. It’s not so much the prolific profanity but the type of violence the film employs that gets things a bit wonky.

It seems like Gordon is going for Three Stooges-like behavior — violence with little to no consequences — but the reality of it is sometimes a little more brutal than absolutely necessary.

The comedic chemistry between Bateman and McCarthy is palpable. Usually, Bateman has the reputation for being dry and understated and McCarthy for being over-the-top. Although each plays up those personas as expected, they both flip the script on occasion, making those moments more impactful than they would be otherwise.

Together, they elevate what could have been a run-of-the-mill comedy and turn it into something memorable. With Warm Bodies and, now, Identity Thief, it’s already shaping up to be a great year for comedies.

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